New concerns about antibiotic-resistant bacterium raise questions for pork producers
By Randa Wagner
Morrow County Sentinel
Pork products have recently come under scrutiny by consumer groups for harboring a hard-to-pronounce bacteria that can cause food poisoning, especially in children.
Yersinia enterocolitica came under the microscope after Consumer Reports recently performed an analysis of American pork in grocery and specialty stores. Their findings were that many samples contained high levels of a bacterium, and much of the bacteria samples were resistant to antibiotics.
According to the report, Yersinia enterocolitica was found in 69% of samples tested (148 samples of pork chops and 50 samples of ground pork). The samples came from a wide range of stores in six American cities. Y. enterocolitica is less familiar to the public than contaminants such as salmonella and E. coli, but it sickens about 100,000 Americans a year, especially children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.
Where does it come from? Pork producers put antibiotics in animal feed to prompt to livestock grow larger. According to Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Director of Safety and Sustainability at Consumer Reports, “Antibiotics are routinely fed to healthy animals at low levels. This practice promotes the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria which are a major public health concern.”
Antibiotics were, at one time, administered to farm animals only when an animal exhibited signs of infection. Research suggest animals now destined for the dinner table are routinely given a steady supply of antibiotics in feed supplements and in water, regardless of whether there’s evidence of any disease. GreenLiving.com says though this “sub-therapeutic” use of antibiotic drugs helps animals grow slightly larger (about two or three percent). Some farmers argue that the constant use of antibiotics also helps to prevent diseases that would otherwise spread quickly in the crowded pens that are common on factory farms.
“The single biggest problem we face in infectious disease today is the rapid growth of resistance to antibiotics,” said Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida. “Human use contributes to that, but use in animals clearly has a part, too.”
Though the major animal carrier for Y. enterocolitica strains that cause human illness is pigs, other strains are also found in animals including rodents, rabbits, sheep, cattle, horses, dogs, and cats. Pork, however, has always received a ‘bad rap’ when it comes to concerns over undercooking.
The United States Department of Agriculture points out that these products are in compliance with national food safety guidelines, and the National Pork Producers Council has questioned the validity of the entire Consumer Reports study. Since the likelihood of pork producers abandoning the practice of regularly using antibiotics is no more likely than beef or poultry producers doing the same, the consumer must bear the responsibility of taking whatever precautions are necessary to reduce the risk of infection.
Just as with poultry, raw meat should not be cut on the same surface as vegetables, and anyone who has handled raw meat should thoroughly wash his or her hands as soon as possible. Place cutting boards and other utensils used to prepare raw meat directly into the dishwasher or wash thoroughly with soap.
Consumer Reports found that ground pork was more likely than pork chops to harbor the bacterium. If you are pressure canning pork at home, 10 pounds of pressure equates to 240 degrees, so canning kills the bacteria. Otherwise, pork should be cooked to 145 degrees for whole pieces of meat and 160 degrees for ground pork.
“The problem is, we don’t typically cook our foods to that high of a temperature,” said Jeffrey LeJeune, microbiologist with OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.
Consumers can also check the meat for a USDA label reading “No antibiotics used.” These meats usually come at a higher cost to consumers, though.
Where does this leave pork producers?
The National Pork Producers Council has challenged the report from Consumers Report on the basis of methodology and sample size.
“The low number of samples tested (198) does not provide a nationally informative estimate of the true prevalence of the cited bacteria on meat,” the NPPC responded. “Yersinia enterocolitica has more than 50 serotypes and several biotypes, only a few of which are pathogenic.”
The debate lingers on.